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Kaunda's unmatched bid to nurture unity of Africa

By Oscar Obonyo | June 20th 2021
Former President of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda speaks during the funeral service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. [Courtesy]

Many Kenyans aged above 40 may be familiar with the Kaunda Suit – an outfit design of the same fabric and colour with a short-sleeved jacket worn without a tie – named after the late Zambian President Kenneth David Kaunda.

Popular with top political leaders on the continent in the 1960s and 1970s, this type of suit was mostly associated with Kaunda, who died in Lusaka on Thursday aged 97.

Except for Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta, most pre-independence crusaders in East and Central Africa, who later ascended to power, including Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Mobutu Sesseko (Zaire), and Uganda’s Milton Obote, happily opted to emulate Kaunda’s fashion statement.         

Kaunda or “KK” as he was fondly referred to, not only wielded influence over his colleagues in matters fashion and lifestyle, but also on the political scene. He was the face of the pan-Africanist movement, alongside Ghana’s Kwame Nkurumah, who pushed hard for political emancipation for their respective nations and indeed Africa.     

That KK leaves behind an indelible mark on the continent, particularly in Kenya where one of the busiest streets in the Capital City’s Central Business District (CBD) is named after him, is not in doubt.

This is a fact similarly shared by Kaunda himself, who during the many trips to Kenya over the decades, confessed his affection for the country and its people.

But it is probably the gesture by “enterprising Kenyans” to name his favourite suit after him, and proceed to produce and market the suit widely in the region, that humbled the Zambian leader most.

In an old Chinese TV Channel (CCTV) interview clip, KK explains the Kenyan link to the Kaunda Suit, attributing it to “smart-minded” businessmen.

He had visited his comrade, Nyerere, in Mbeya, Tanzania, when the Kaunda Suit discussion popped up. At the time, they were all dressed uniformly in what Kaunda refers to in jest as, “my suit”.

“You know, these Kenyans are very business-minded, yet cautious. Because they are trading in these suits without prior permission, they fear that you might sue them for infringement.

"So they decided to name the suit, Kaunda, so that Kaunda doesn’t get angry if he finds out the truth,” says Kaunda in laughter, quoting Nyerere.

Acknowledge the death

Besides the Kaunda Suit, the other distinct physical feature about KK is the clean white linen handkerchief, which he carried. In a way, this piece of cloth epitomised the nonagenarian’s near-spotlessness, transparency and forthrightness.     

When, for instance, in October 1987 Kaunda publicly disclosed to the world that his son had succumbed to HIV and Aids-related complications, many were taken aback.

This was indeed the first time for an African, of his stature, to openly acknowledge the death of a member of his family from the condition, which then had a lot of stigma attached to it. 

And until Thursday when the retired president finally joined his departed son, Masuzga Kaunda, the old man has been engrossed in the battle against HIV and Aids. He was involved in awareness creation programmes across Africa, an engagement leading to his occasional visits to Kenya.

Kaunda made a passionate appeal for concerted efforts by African governments, as part of a comprehensive international campaign against HIV and Aids.

His openness and courageous move towards this front was not any different from how he felt about Kenya and its political leadership, which he occasionally unleashed a barb at.

When, for instance, on December 14, 2010, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Luis Moreno-Ocampo, held a press conference in The Hague, to announce that he was going to charge six prominent Kenyans for allegedly inciting or facilitating ethnic violence following Kenya’s 2007 elections, Kaunda was very disturbed.    

Speaking to a small group of journalists in Algiers, Algeria, on the very day the so-called “Ocampo Six” was unveiled, Kaunda expressed “deep regret” at the development which “had brought shame not only to one of Africa’s promising nations but to the whole continent”.

“What has happened goes against our initial pan-Africanist spirit of uniting African nations, unity is proving elusive even within the single nations,” he said at the Sheraton Hotel, on the sidelines of an African Union event attended by some retired presidents.  

Kaunda was a great son of Africa, who cherished peace and valued democratic tenets. When he was unexpectedly trounced at the ballot in 1991 by trade union leader Fredrick Chiluba, he willingly stepped down without a fight. Other African leaders, including his close comrade Mugabe, were different of course.

He always wept into his white handkerchief when making speeches about the tribulations of Africa. 



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